American comedians have had a long-standing tradition of commenting on the political scene of the time. Their satirical commentaries have been both gentle and vicious and have entertained and rattled the political establishment in equal measure.
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From My House to the White House
A versatile performer—actor, monologist, dancer, singer, sketch comedian, and master of ceremonies—Bob Hope honed his myriad talents in front of vaudeville audiences of all kinds before graduating to the Broadway stage. Hope then entertained an ever-expanding mainstream national audience through radio, motion pictures, and television. For his weekly NBC radio shows, Hope hired a host of comedy writers to supply him with an abundant flow of topical material to give his new audience a sense of connection to the pulse of the times. In a career that spanned eight decades, Hope walked a fine line between tolerant comedy that poked fun and biting satire that punctured, regaling audiences from all walks of life with jokes about the state of the nation’s affairs and its leaders.
God gave me a certain ability to make people laugh, but America gave me the chance to do it. In no other country in the world does free speech pay so well.
—Bob Hope, 1973
The Fine Art of Ridicule
President William Howard Taft once confided to the actor Francis X. Bushman: “All the people love you and I can’t have even the love of half the people.” Like actors, political humorists have tried to appeal to a broad spectrum of audiences. Early on, Bob Hope decided not to let his own political views intrude on his comedy: “My sponsor was Pepsodent and when I was going to speak for Roosevelt, the sponsor pointed out that Republicans brush their teeth, too.” Hope’s humor, like that of Will Rogers, was intended to be cutting but not spiteful. Despite their jibes, many presidents sought out political humorists and relished their light satire.
Way back in America’s history, journalists, political activists and cartoonists were the primary critics of our country’s leaders. . . . Will Rogers, with his down-home way, made ridiculing political leaders an art form. And that art form has been embraced by America’s humorists ever since.
—Bob Hope, 1996
Breaking with Tradition
In the 1950s, a new generation of comedians produced political satire that was biting, experimental, and irreverent. Comics like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Dick Gregory took Bob Hope’s topical style a step further by ad-libbing up-to-the-minute material in front of live audiences. The new political satirists, along with comedians specializing in social commentary, were dubbed the “sick comics” by the press. The “sick” label, cartoonist Jules Feiffer has argued, was mistaken: “A humorist will hold up a mirror, look at its reflection chuckle warmly and say ‘Well it’s silly but it’s not such a bad reflection after all’; a satirist will have a darker view.” These satirists, Feiffer contended, “weren’t sick. But they had to be handled, tagged, pinned down somehow because they were dangerous.”
I admire Mort Sahl. . . . the beatnik Will Rogers. . . . Mort’s not a sick comic. I think he’s a well comic with a sick audience.
—Bob Hope, 1959
The New Wave Hits the Mainstream
The new wave of satiric comedians hailed from college campuses and cellar nightclubs, such as San Francisco’s “the hungry i” (named for its “hungry intellectual” clientele). These comics attracted younger, more affluent, more educated, more self-consciously “hip” audiences than those for whom comedians trained in vaudeville performed. Critic Ralph J. Gleason commented that the new comedy “bears a strong resemblance to jazz. It is rooted in the same dissent, nurtured in the same rebellion and articulated in the same language in which the priorities of the Establishment have no standing at all.” When the new comedians reached the mainstream through comedy albums and appearances on television variety shows, they often had to moderate their iconoclastic material to suit national tastes. In adapting, they relied on comic talent that transcended politics, and in so doing, became part of the mass culture they once had satirized.
Satire is a sort of Glass, wherein Beholders do generally discover everybody’s Face but their own; which is the chief Reason for that kind Reception it meets in the World, and that so very few are offended with it.
—Jonathan Swift, 1704
The Dangers of Satire
Some of the satirists from the 1950s used their entertainment platforms to do more than simply entertain. Following the assassination of President Kennedy, Mort Sahl, who had written jokes for Kennedy and had satirized him mercilessly, launched an attack on the veracity of the Warren Report that left his audiences unsettled. In the last years of his life, Lenny Bruce spent large portions of his act commenting on his own legal battles fighting obscenity charges. Dick Gregory’s career as a comedian often was interrupted as he became deeply involved in the civil rights, antiwar, feminist, and environmental movements, in addition to running for president. All wove political activism into their comedic performances at the risk of alienating their audiences.
When anyone publicly abuses another in a loud voice, or writes a poem for the purpose of insulting him, or rendering him infamous, he shall be beaten with a rod until he dies,
—Roman Twelve Tables of Law, ca. 450 B.C.E.
Hope and Satire
Throughout his career, Bob Hope received an inordinate amount of criticism when his comments seemed to cross an ever-changing line of good taste. Hope’s vaudeville act was censored in Boston. On the radio, NBC received protests when Hope made jokes about electoral politics and “faded” the audio level when he satirized the network itself. In a 1949 radio broadcast, Hope did a sketch lampooning President Harry Truman and his wife Bess that provoked many letters in protest, one of which warned, “ridicule is the surest and quickest way to weaken and destroy our respect for the highest office in our country.” Hope discovered that the ancient dangers of satire remained potent even in a nation founded on the promise of liberty.
One of our greatest freedoms is to crack jokes at our government’s expense. . . . When we’re afraid to be funny about our political opponents, there won’t be any politics left, just dictators.
—Bob Hope, 1955
Cartoons and Satire
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, playwright, author, and screenwriter Jules Feiffer created satirical cartoons on a weekly basis for the Village Voice for more than forty years, beginning in 1956. His cartoon was entitled “Sick, Sick, Sick,” and like the so-called “sick” comedians, Feiffer brought into focus disturbing aspects of a sick society. Like Bob Hope, Feiffer often centered his satires on American presidents. Unlike Hope, Feiffer’s cartoons mercilessly ridiculed attitudes, decisions, and actions of leaders who, in his view, had caused the nation to lose its way. Feiffer, as he commented, “thought the country was coming unglued and that many of the values that we sentimentalized had this dark side that we chose not to reveal to ourselves.” Like other satirists of his time, Feiffer became politically active during the 1960s, and his cartoons from that period reflected his deepening concerns.
I began my cartoon with no intention of getting into politics. . . . I was more concerned with the social focus of the country, on relationships between men and women, people and their jobs, parents and children. After a time I discovered that even these interests involved politics. The Eisenhower sensibility affected every phase of our lives, as did the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon sensibilities later on.
—Jules Feiffer, 1974
Satire Enters Television
Television, famously dubbed the “cool medium” by Marshall McLuhan, would seem an unlikely stage for political satirists. Yet variety shows, featuring a playbill of acts designed for diverse audiences, allowed stand-up comics, sketch comedians, and folk singers an outlet for topical material. Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and other variety and late-night hosts provided a venue for comedians of the 1950s and early 1960s, though they had to dilute or eliminate material offensive to some members of the national audience. From the mid-1960s to the present, shows like That Was the Week That Was (1964–1965), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967–1969), Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968–1973), and Saturday Night Live (1975– ) courted controversy when they commented on current events. Political and social satire entered the sitcom when All in the Family (1971–1979) situated the liberal-conservative culture clash within a working-class household in Queens, New York.
I honestly think that the secret of TV is being relaxed, casual and easy. . . . The truth is that when you’re right in the room with those who watch you and listen to you, as you are in TV, practically sitting in their laps and muttering into their ears, your personality is more important than anything you can say.
—Bob Hope, 1954